Swarkestone, Derbyshire

The bridge at Swarkestone is tremendous. From the northern bank it stretches south for almost a mile, first across the mighty river Trent and then on a causeway over the wide marshy meadows beyond. Most of its seventeen arches are medieval but the span across the actual river had to be replaced in the 18th century when the contents of a timber yard were swept downstream in a flood and caused irrevocable damage. It’s the longest stone bridge in England and for centuries, being the only Midlands crossing of the Trent, was of vital strategic importance. At the Battle of Swarkestone Bridge on January 5th 1643 the Royalists finally lost their hold on it when outnumbered by the Parliamentarians. The latter were led by the infamous plunderer John Gell of Hopton, who commanded the bridge for the rest of the Civil War. A century later Swarkestone was the most southerly point reached by Bonny Prince Charlie’s army during their advance on London. They found little support in the south and were forced to turn back.

Swarkestone_Hall_Pavilion_1The village straggles along Woodshop Lane set with pretty red brick cottages, the half timbered “Crow’s Nest” and a comforting former coaching Inn called the Crewe Harpur Arms complete with its old stable block behind. Bay windows look out across sloping lawns to the river and a perfect view of the bridge. Just across the road a footpath leads downstream beside the Trent to Swarkestone church – virtually rebuilt in the 1870s by FJ Robinson. The local grandees’ chapel remains within it and contains alabaster monuments to Richard Harpur, a sergeant at law, who first bought the Swarkestone estate from the Rolleston family in the 1550s and to his son Sir John. It was Richard who built a magnificent Elizabethan mansion just beyond the church. Both father and son accrued vast acres in south Derbyshire and Staffordshire and the house befitted their county standing with its 45 rooms, huge cellars, gatehouse and dovecote.

Today only the ghost of the Harpurs’ vast pile remains in the grounds of a working farm. Red cattle graze in among its ruinous, ivy swamped walls and eerie doorways: stone chimneypieces hover at first floor level. Although the house was repaired after suffering damage in the civil war, the direct Harpur line ran out by the end of the seventeenth century and Swarkeston passed to a great uncle whose family preferred to make nearby Calke Abbey the hub of the Harpur acres. Most of the abandoned house was demolished for spoil in 1750.

But standing a little apart, there is one remnant of the Hall’s former splendour which remains intact – a beautiful garden pavilion. Long after they had left Swarkestone the Harpurs took care to preserve its masonry, perhaps as a symbol of family pride. It looks towards the river over a large walled enclosure called the Cuttle and was completed in 1632 by Richard Shepherd , a local mason, who charged £111.12s.6d and a bit extra for the leaded domes. Almost certainly designed by John Smythson (who had already enriched Bolsover Castle with the latest architectural fashions) it has been variously called the Balcony, the Stand, the Grandstand, The Summer House and Bowl Alley House while different historians surmise about its past uses. Because I first saw it on the 1968 Album cover of the Beggars Banquet, with the Rolling Stones cavorting in front it, I prefer to imagine it was a Banqueting House. Certainly they were all the rage in the 1630s –a place where you retired to after large meals for conversation, sweetmeats, gambling and drink. (There’s a cellar beneath!) But whatever it served as, the hauntingly romantic air which hangs over Swarkestone – with its historic bridge and Harpur vestiges- remains unforgettable.

Swarkestone Pavilion was restored and is now owned by the wonderful www.landmarktrust.org.uk  It sleeps two.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons / histman

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